Music, Music, Music

The minute they grow beyond holidays and vacations, your videos need store-bought music. Programs for clients, wedding tapes, videos for sale, shows for contests or other public viewing they all should have legal music or no music at all. Trust us: the music industry protects its rights vigorously and effectively.

There are four different routes to legitimate tracks:

  • Obtain rights to individual pieces.
  • Buy royalty-free pieces or packages.
  • Mold musical phrases to your exact needs.
  • Build songs from audio loops.

Of course there is a fifth route: compose and perform an original composition, but we’re not going to cover that complex topic here.

At different times, we’ve discussed each of these options (see the accompanying sidebar for listings), so let’s stand them all side-by-side to compare the pros and cons. We’re going to find that each type of music making has much to recommend it, in the right situation, of course.


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First off, you can rent the rights to countless thousands of songs, from hip-hop to Gregorian chants. To do so, hit the Web sites of ASCAP, BMI or SESAC and follow the instructions. You’ll end up with the right to use your rented piece in a specific program that’s intended for a specified purpose.

This route has several benefits. You can match the musical flavor to the program exactly, because you have so many thousands of pieces to choose from. You can enhance your show with the world’s finest compositions, performed by the most talented artists and mixed by the best engineers. You can increase audience identification as viewers recognize famous tracks.

Now the down side. First, the rights to some pieces are unobtainable, at least by small-scale entrepreneurs, and the costs of others may be prohibitive. You want the Lohengrin Wedding March recorded in 1953 by the Lower Slobbovian Radio Orchestra? No problem! Paul Simon’s Graceland? That’s different.

Second, you’re pretty much stuck with the length you get. You can fade pieces in and out and sometimes adjust length by cutting or by carefully doubling musical elements, but that’s about it.

Nevertheless, there are times when only one piece of music will do. My niece just got married to a Wynton Marsalis performance of the Trumpet Voluntary by Jeremiah Clarke. When I edit her wedding video, you better believe I’ll go after the rights to that track!

Royalty-Free Music

Royalty-free music composed specifically for videos is often far more practical. To get it, you purchase a package of tracks anywhere from a single CD to a huge music library for a one-time fee that gives you the rights to unlimited uses of all the tracks, within the scope defined by your license. For one-time use, you can often pay for and download individual tracks.

Royalty-free music has many advantages. For one thing, it is tailored for specific genres of programs, such as commercials, weddings, corporate videos and training aids. Each track is titled to explain its use, which can result in some pretty funny names like "Corporate Tadaaa!" and "Bright Digital Future."

Most discs have pieces in different lengths, ranging from five-second "stings" and wrap-ups, to three- or four-minute compositions for underscoring. The more complete libraries contain each length in multiple orchestrations (e.g. "with piano solo" or "light orchestral"). Some also supply alternate styles, such as New Age, Bluegrass or Soft Rock.

If you buy a large package, you can frequently get a database of every single cut, searchable by all sorts of key words. But such packages are usually for production departments or houses that may need dozens or even hundreds of tracks for their many programs.

Perhaps the most attractive features of buyout music are cost and ease of use. Though prices vary among the many stock music houses, individual cuts are usually inexpensive to rent. If you regularly produce one type of program weddings, say, or training videos a royalty-free package of tracks is often a true bargain. When you need a cut, simply choose the emotional effect, the length, the orchestration or perhaps the musical genre and lay it in.

In the minus department, the compositions are still not exactly the same duration as your project, forcing editing compromises and improvisations. Finally, most (though not all) library music sounds like what it is: canned and pervaded with a faint aroma of elevators. It’s great for underscoring and other unobtrusive program support functions, but you won’t want to let it call attention to itself.


SmartSound markets several products that let you create perfectly-timed compositions in a variety of musical arrangements. In its simplest form, the procedure involves selecting a track, choosing a style from a list, and entering the required length. With that done, a mouse click generates a version customized to your program.

It’s a real composition too, not just a hunk of underscoring. That’s because each composition is supplied with a beginning, middle and end. The sneaky part is in the middle section, which can be cut anywhere at one-second intervals and seamlessly joined to the engine and caboose. The pieces are so cleverly composed that they sound perfect, regardless of length. The music is about the same quality as buyout music and some SmartSound tracks are actually derived from the Music Bakery’s buyout library.

Admittedly, video sections don’t usually end in even seconds (with a time code address like 00:03:21:00). However, if you want to time music to the frame, simply use rolling edits to adjust some shots by a few undetectable frames each until you come out in sync with the music ending with the last shot.

SmartSound programs come in three flavors. Movie Maestro ($50) includes the basic functions and allows royalty-free use in non-commercial and educational applications. You can add to the compositions supplied by buying SmartSound CDs and then selecting the styles suitable for the programs you produce.

Quicktracks (bundled with Adobe Premiere Pro) adds several useful features and grants you full commercial rights. SonicFire Pro, the flagship product ($300-$500), also carries full commercial rights and adds a score of features. You can preview and download SonicFire originals, work with any sound file, including MIDI and audio CD tracks and control composition and editing with great precision and finesse. The results are so good that many small production houses rely on SonicFire exclusively.

Loop the Loop

If you want to customize music even more completely, loop-based composition may be for you. The basic idea is simple: compose original music yourself by manipulating repeating segments of music (called "loops" because their analog ancestors were lengths of recording tape with head and tail spliced together to make a circle that could be replayed endlessly). ACID from Sony (purchased from Sonic Foundry) is the oldest and most popular software suite for loop-based composition, but there are several other products as well, such as Fruity Loops, Adobe Audition or Bitheadz.

Working horizontally (on a timeline), you pick a starting track, often some sort of rhythm instrument, and lay down one or more sequences of repeated loops. Then you lay down a second layer on the next track on the timeline, perhaps a bass line. You continue this process with additional layers and instruments until you’ve achieved the desired effect.

This sounds crude until you recall that loop-based software can access literally tens of thousands of different loops, performed by professional musicians on real instruments (as opposed to synthesized equivalents). Selected, combined and enhanced with ingenuity, these components will yield music that sounds sophisticated and completely original.

The good and bad news about loop composition is the same: it involves creating actual melodies and arrangements. If you have musical talent and at least some experience, you can achieve results that are remarkably fine and personally gratifying. On the other hand, if you compose just by randomly noodling around, you may never get satisfactory results.

Talented or not, you’ll spend a good chunk of time on each piece. Imagine building a 30-second, multi-layer video montage, manipulating tempo and color, adding effects and compositing 3D moving titles. Creating a sophisticated loop-based composition can be similarly time-consuming.

In the Final Analysis

As we promised, each type of music has its place. If a specific piece of music is important, it may be worth renting the rights to it. If you specialize in a certain genre of video, a good library of buyout music may be the fastest way to achieve a professional sound. If you produce a variety of styles of programs, then customizable tracks from SmartSound offer great versatility and lightning speed. If you have the time and the talent, nothing is more creatively satisfying than layering up loop-based music.

Well actually, one thing is more satisfying. But if you could compose, arrange, perform and record your own original music, you wouldn’t need these other solutions anyway.

Music Creation Software Manufacturer Listing

This is a sampling of companies that produce music creation software. It is not a complete listing.

CD Music and Sound Effect Libraries Manufacturers Listing

This is a sampling of companies that produce music and/or sound effect libraries. This is not a complete listing.

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